Season four of Masters of Sex begins tonight, and Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) have reached a turning point. Their sex study has weathered the storms of the conservative ‘50s and hippie ‘60s and is fast approaching the swinging ‘70s.
Over the summer, actors Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplan joined series creator Michelle Ashford on a panel with other Showtime dramas for the Television Critics Association. Afterwards, we spoke with Michael Sheen further about the changes in store for Bill Masters this season.
Are Masters and Johnson still doing sex studies, where they have couples come into the lab?
Michael Sheen: Yeah, they start to get into the idea of dysfunction this season. So they start looking at what would be known as deviancy. It opens up the possibilities of, rather than just working on people who have problems and they want to try to get things working better for themselves, now we’re dealing with people who have sexual peccadillos or fetishes and that kind of stuff. They start going off into really interesting areas I think this season.
Are they mostly the common fetishes we know about or some obscure ones too?
Michael Sheen: There’s a whole mixture of stuff I think. There’s a mixture of things but because they’re the first people to start looking into that, it’s things that we’re familiar with to begin with but then it goes off into other areas.
What excites you about Masters in the ‘70s?
Michael Sheen: It’s, I suppose, at a time when a lot of the Pandora’s Box that they were part of opening to do with sexuality starts to sweep through the culture. So they start to find themselves living amongst their Frankenstein monsters in a way. For Bill himself personally, he’s loosening up so much himself and starting to see things in a different way. He looks different, he sounds different, he reacts to people differently. That’s what I’ve enjoyed this season, is to be able to play someone who’s becoming more eccentric in certain ways and is funny and laughs and tells jokes and stuff like that. It’s kind of interesting.
Have they started changing the costumes and sets?
Michael Sheen: Well yeah, everything has to change. Lots of very different looks now. I wear completely different clothes. What’s been interesting for me, because I’ve kind of pretty much looked the same all the way through, and everyone else gets to look different. There’s always these crazy hairstyles going around the place and I just look the same. So it’s been nice to be able to look a bit different this time as well.
Is stepping on the set of Masters of Sex like stepping into a time machine?
Michael Sheen: Funnily enough, I was just thinking for the first time this season, there was a scene where there was a key party, like a swingers party. We went to this house and I remember standing in the house there thinking, “This seems really familiar.” I realized, because it was ’69/’70 where that scene was set, I was born in ’69 and so most of my friends’ houses that I would go to when I was a younger kid all looked like that. It was the mid to late ‘70s so it suddenly felt like deja vu. Now we’re acting in things that I kind of remember. That’s a bit weird so it does feel like a weird time machine.
Do you enjoy playing Bill Masters more when he’s oblivious to the effect of his behavior, or when he has moments of self-awareness?
Michael Sheen: I think the two go together, don’t they? What’s enjoyable is to be able to play a character who’s life is illuminated by flashes of lightning in a way. He is in the dark most of the time, and the more in the dark he is, the more he has to pretend that he’s in control and that’s his downfall. But slowly, as time goes on, those flashes that he gets star to create more of a pattern. Certainly in this next season, all those little glimpses of maybe the truth about himself start to form one bigger picture. That creates change in him. So you see more change in him this season than you’ve ever seen before. In fact, Virginia starts to go in a different direction. A crossover starts happening which is kind of interesting.
Are you limited in some ways to how much he can change, because there is the real Bill Masters?
Michael Sheen: No, not at all. In fact, from the very beginning of the whole show, the thing I found most interesting was that people said at the end of their working lives, people found Bill to be the warmer one and that Virginia was the one who was more cold and scary and manipulative. So from the very beginning of the whole story, that has always been what we’ve been heading for. That’s why I found it fascinating to take a character and start him in such an extreme place knowing that he’s going to go to the almost other extreme. To map that out as we go along. So I’ve always had that as a guiding principal in a way, and that liberates everything, because then you kind of think, “Well, we’ve got a long way to go with this character.” Charting that has been fascinating. I think a lot of the groundwork that has been laid for that starts to come out onto the surface of this next season. So there’ll be a lot of surprises I think for people with the characters this season.
Do you have lots of scenes with the new cast members?
Michael Sheen: Yeah, because their practice started to expand and they needed to start bringing other people in, and also because of what’s going on between Bill and Virginia, they feel like they need a buffer. So they bring other people in to work so we’ve got some new regular characters who are fantastic. Betty Gilpin comes in to play a character, Nancy. Jeremy Strong plays a character called Art Dreesen. They become regular people working alongside us and that creates a new dynamic. We have a couple of people who pop back that we haven’t seen for a while, who I won’t say because that would spoil it. Hugh Hefner comes back again.